The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has started a week-long tour of four West African countries to assess repatriation efforts in the region. Liberia is of particular concern, as hundreds-of-thousands of refugees return to the devastated country.
Refugee Commissioner Ruud Lubbers held talks Monday in Guinea, to discuss how millions of people displaced by regional wars can best be helped.
Wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone are officially over, and the international refugee agency has helped hundreds of thousands of refugees return home. The repatriation program in Sierra Leone ended in mid-2004, and now development aid to refugees who have returned is being phased out.
The agency is also helping some of the more than 300,000 Liberian refugees who wish to go home. The repatriation program there is expected to continue into 2007.
Jennifer Pagonis, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR West Africa region, said from Geneva, the agency was particularly concerned about the conditions people face upon returning home. Although many refugees want to go home, Liberia, after nearly 15 years of fighting, cannot fulfill their basic needs.
"I think on of the problems they face is obviously unemployment," Ms. Pagonis says. "They are going back to countries, which have been completely devastated. There is very little in the way of infrastructure, and for people to be able to start their lives, start farming again, find work again, have enough food to get them through these first few months of re-establishing themselves, these are pretty important issues."
Another stop on the high commissioner's trip is Liberia's neighbor, Ivory Coast. Around 10,000 Ivorians fled to Liberia and Guinea during recent violence in Ivory Coast.
Ms. Pagonis says Ivory Coast's neighboring countries cannot support a new influx of refugees.
"Many of these people, when they come across, they stay with relatives, they stay with host families, and this places incredible strain on people, because these families don't have really enough resources of their own, and they are just starting to re-establish themselves, without sharing it with kith and kin, who come over in search of sanctuary," Ms. Pagonis says.
Mr. Lubbers is to end his trip in Ivory Coast, after stops in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where he is to accompany a convoy of refugees returning home.